Sheldon Kennedy shocked over coach's pardon
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Monday, April 5, 2010 1:39PM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 1:20AM EDT
Victims of a former junior hockey coach imprisoned for sexually abusing his players say it was like a slap in the face to learn that he was quietly pardoned by the National Parole Board, 10 years after pleading guilty to molesting his teenaged players.
A report Sunday by The Canadian Press revealed that Graham James was pardoned in January, 2007, after serving a 3.5-year prison sentence for sexual assaults on two of his players.
Sheldon Kennedy, one of the two players James was convicted of molesting, told CTV's Canada AM that he was shocked and disappointed to learn of the pardon.
"My first reaction was how lightly we take the offences, the sex crimes that Graham has committed and others have committed in this country," Kennedy said. "That whole process of Graham being investigated, charged, pleading guilty [and] being pardoned is a matter of 10 years. Yet I see people every day, victims of sex crimes, dealing with this and most of the time it ruins their lives for many, many years."
"To me it's really a slap in the face for everybody."
The revelation that James had been pardoned prompted indignation across the country, from hockey parents to the Prime Minister's Office.
A spokesman for Stephen Harper called it a "deeply troubling and gravely disturbing" development.
And Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said Monday that the federal government will look for ways to put an end to "rubber-stamped" pardons.
"I think there needs to be a little more direction given to the (National Parole) Board in terms of what they can consider overall, and that these things should not just be rubber-stamped," Toews said. "We're taking a look at the legislation to see how we can consider amending (it)."
Almost any criminal can apply for a pardon, either three or five years after completing their sentence, depending on the severity of the crime. The current law gives the parole board only a few grounds for rejecting the applications of ex-convicts.
"I'm actually quite concerned about certain types of sex offenders getting pardons, especially pedophiles. In my opinion and in my experience, pedophiles are not easily cured," Toews said.
He said the government could decide to ban sex criminals from receiving pardons or extend the time they would have to wait before applying.
"There may have to be more consideration by the board given to the particular type of offence, and at the present time the board is not entitled to differentiate between offences."
James, now 58, pleaded guilty to sexual assault in 1997 after two of his former players, including ex-NHL player Kennedy, went public with stories that he had molested them while he was coaching their Western Hockey League teams between 1984 and 1995.
James was charismatic and consistently successful as a coach. Even while being investigated for sexual abuse, he was able to secure character references from respected hockey officials and former players.
To the end, he claimed that his relationship with Kennedy was consensual and that he had done nothing illegal or immoral.
Kennedy said the pardon just reinforces James' refusal to apologize for the abuse he inflicted on his young charges.
"Graham James was able to coach five teams before anything was ever done with him," he said. "I never, ever heard any remorse, I never heard any apology. And when he came out of jail he went right into the playground that he was put in jail for and that was coaching kids. And that bothers me."
Former NHL star Theoren Fleury has now lodged a formal complaint with police after publishing his autobiography last fall that included details of years of abuse by James.
Entitled "Playing With Fire," Fleury's book alleges that James began molesting him at age 14, describing one occasion when James drove both he and Kennedy to Disneyland for a vacation, assaulting them on alternate days. Police are still investigating those allegations.
Fleury said hearing of James' pardon left him "shocked and mystified."
"I had to take a few minutes to kind of digest and think about what had happened," he told CTV Calgary. "It took me 25 years to come to grips with what happened to me … but it's very clear that the system is flawed and the system needs to be changed."
"We pride ourselves on being one of the safest countries in the world and that we do take care of our children. A decision like that just kind of throws that all out."
Fleury said the pardon will make it "even tougher" for victims of sexual abuse to talk about what happened to them.
The pardon was approved by Pierre Dion, a clinical psychologist in Ottawa and full-time member of the Appeal Division of the National Parole Board, the wire service reported.
Dion, who was first appointed by the Liberals and re-appointed by the Conservatives, has not been available for comment.
James began his coaching career in 1984 as head coach of the WHL's Moose Jaw Warriors and later the Swift Current Broncos, recruiting both Fleury and Kennedy.
It wasn't until more than a decade later, in 1996, when James was coach, general manager and part-owner of the WHL's Calgary Hitmen that he was charged with sexual assault.
The other victim besides Kennedy has never been publicly named and Fleury was not one of the complainants at the time.
James' current whereabouts are unknown.
The Canadian Hockey association has barred him from coaching for life. However, from 2001 to 2003, James coached hockey in Spain, including the national team -- with his Spanish employers fully aware of his Canadian police record.
In addition to ensuring he had no further convictions, the parole board would have been obliged to investigate James's behaviour to ensure he was of "good conduct" during that time.
In 2006-07, the parole board issued 7,672 pardons to people convicted of lesser offences, 7,076 pardons to people with more serious convictions, and denied just 103 applications.
A pardon can be revoked if the person is later convicted of another crime, or the parole board finds the person is no longer of good conduct. Discovering the person lied or concealed relevant information at the time of the application can also result in a pardon being cancelled.